New insight from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard sheds an oddly positive light on your toddler's habit of eating dirt. Research shows that children who are exposed to a variety of germs at a young age are less likely to develop autoimmune diseases later in life. This so-called "hygiene hypothesis" posits that "a lack of exposure to bacteria and viruses in early childhood impedes our immune systems' ability to develop properly, causing excessive immune responses to things that aren't actually threatening (like gluten)," explains Slate's Elissa Strauss.
The catch? Children reared in the Western world are exposed to comparatively fewer germs than those raised in other countries. While this may sound like a good thing, some believe that this lack of exposure is why we have a country of people suffering from allergies and autoimmune diseases. Scientists and researchers reportedly began exploring this idea in the 1980s, and they have slowly come to the conclusion that we live in a world too clean for our own good. Who would have thought that our nation's obsessive Swiffering, Windexing, and vacuuming would cost us our children's immune strength?
Before you reevaluate your entire approach to your child's hygiene, keep in mind that this isn't just the parent's doing. The study found that basic cultural and environmental differences from country to country significantly alter the number of germs children are exposed to (intentional or not). "This is affected not only by the present conditions, but also by the choices of previous generations," explains Strauss. "The vaccinations taken and food eaten by our grandparents contributed to the makeup of our microbiome today."
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